Water scarcity affects more than 40 per cent of the world’s population. The sustainable development goals (SDGs) aim to expand international cooperation and capacity on water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes and support local communities in improving water and sanitation management. Through SDG-6, countries are trying to achieve universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene for all. It is projected that by 2050 at least one in four people will face recurring water shortages.
Safe and affordable drinking water for all requires adequate investment in infrastructure and restoration of water-related ecosystems. A structure like a water ATM (anytime water machine) installed at various public places, such as railway stations, bus stands, metro stations and hospitals, helps provide potable water to the people.
ATM is a water dispensation system that provides a solution to safe drinking water 24 hours a day. These machines help in augmenting the infrastructure of water supply and delivery. They have several advantages like low investments, low operating costs, availability of safe drinking water round the clock and enhanced accessibility with the pay-per-use methodology. They also provide a cheaper alternative to packaged drinking water, thus reducing the use of plastics. It is estimated that about 100 water ATMs at suburban railway stations have the potential to eliminate the use of nearly 0.25 million individual single-serve plastic bottles every day. Further, water ATMs reduce the travelling distance to fetch water, especially in rural areas, which eventually saves time and energy for the people. The installation of water ATMs has been rapid across urban and rural India. Thousands of water ATMs can be found across states. They are installed near hospitals, parks, schools, temples, tourist sites, and on key commuter routes in metropolitan areas such as Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru.
Water ATMs are also a popular CSR activity for many companies that aim to build community assets. A network of water ATMs and purification plants is being created in the country to purify a wide variety of contaminants to provide safe drinking water to the population. Companies like Maruti Suzuki and Hindustan Zinc are helping in the creation of water ATM infrastructure across the country for clean drinking water.
Piramal Sarvajal, seeded by the Piramal Foundation, has set up many solar-powered water ATMs to provide safe drinking water to the people. These automated water dispensing units provide communities with 24×7 safe water access at affordable prices. Being solar powered and cloud connected, these water ATMs enable remote tracking of the water quality and each pay-per-use transaction. Sarvajal employs sophisticated technology that enables them to remotely monitor their distribution network and supply clean water that is accessible at the customer’s convenience.
Despite billions being spent on safe drinking water solutions, many fail to take off. Around 200 automatic water vending machines were installed in Hyderabad five years ago. The machines now stand useless due to broken pipes, stolen tumblers and broken coin slots. The water ATMs were installed to provide citizens with clean drinking water in the city. However, the lack of maintenance and civic sense has made the system ineffective. A survey conducted by the municipal corporation of Gurugram found that 16 out of 44 water ATMs installed in its area were not functional. The objective of installing water ATMs was to provide drinking water at affordable rates at public places and also earn revenue by displaying advertisements on the machines. As the objective of the water ATMs has not been fulfilled, the municipal corporation has decided to cancel the contract of the firms that had installed the machines and were managing them.
The way forward
The composite water management index by NITI Aayog has highlighted that India is undergoing the worst water crisis in history and nearly 600 million people are facing high to extreme water stress. It further mentions that India is placed 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index, with nearly 70 per cent of water being contaminated.
To provide safe drinking water to citizens, the government is taking many steps. It has also recently launched a start-up that uses artificial intelligence (AI) for water purification at an affordable cost. The Gurugram-based company, Swajal Water Private Limited has a patented system called Clairvoyant that uses AI to optimise purification systems and predict future breakdowns. This helps to remotely manage, update and repair each system in real time. The start-up has also developed clean drinking water solutions in the form of water ATMs, which combine IoT technology with solar energy to provide clean drinking water. The water ATMs use solar energy to pump water from rivers, wells, ponds or the ground depending upon the location. The water is then treated with appropriate technology to make it potable. With this innovation, the cost of purified water is expected to be brought down to as low as 25 paise per litre.
The Delhi government is also planning to install around 1,000 RO water ATMs by the end of 2022 that will operate round the clock. These water ATMs will be installed on the existing tube wells at government facilities such as those belonging to the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board. These water dispensing systems are expected to gradually replace water tankers in the city.
The Ministry of Jal Shakti has also recognised the JanaJal Water on Wheels (WOW) as an innovation. It is poised to play a critical role in Har Ghar Jal by making safe water available to every household by 2024. JanaJal WOW is a unique custom-built electric vehicle for the last-meter delivery of safe water to the doorstep of households. It is a completely tech-managed, GPS-monitored and battery-operated secure three-wheeler with zero carbon emissions that mitigates the need for increased accessibility.
The successful implementation of facilities like water ATMs needs robust policy structures specifying tariffs, quality, maintenance schedules, etc. However, ATMs cannot be a standalone solution to the water crisis in the country. Along with the many government initiatives like the National Rural Drinking Water Programme and the Jal Jeevan Mission, the private sector should also come forward with state-of-the-art technology solutions to cater to the nearly 140 million households that do not have access to clean drinking water.